Is the Gulf oil leak the result of deliberate negligence?

With more than 700 oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico sucking fuel from the beneath the sea bed, many people might think it was just a matter of time before something catastrophic happened. Something like a blowout from a riser pipe a mile below the surface and a resulting gush of oil that can’t be stopped for weeks.

Considering the astonishing number of offshore oil platforms along our southern coastline, you might think that safety would come first and that oil companies would put enough redundant systems in place to make a disaster such as the Deepwater Horizon accident impossible.

But unfortunately, instead of installing sufficient blowout preventer (BOP) failsafes, big oil companies have spent millions fighting stricter blowout preventer regulations – requirements that would have made massive oil spills virtually impossible.

Blowout preventers are colossal valves that weigh 250,000 tons and stand up to 50 feet tall, which are positioned over the wellhead on the sea floor and bolted in place. They contain a number of redundant systems and backups designed to prevent an oil spill like the one now occurring from ever happening.

Oil is pumped to the surface only when the rig above sends a continuous signal to the BOP. Should that signal stop for any reason, the wellhead automatically clamps shut. However, after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sunk, oil from the well continued to gush up the riser pipe, which fell to the surface kinked and broken in 3 places. Why?

Because our legislators allowed hugely profitable oil companies to save even more money by not requiring safety systems that other oil producing nations have in place. Seventeen years ago, countries such as Brazil and Norway responded to the threat of deepwater blowouts by requiring an acoustic trigger that could shut the well when everything else failed. The United States considered requiring the same technology, but the oil industry lobbyists fought the proposal, arguing the measures were too expensive.

Acoustic triggers would have cost $500,000 per rig. To put this in perspective, BP leased the Deepwater Horizon rig from Transocean for $500,000 per day for exploratory drilling.

More than that, it will cost nearly $600 million to replace the lost rig, and BP is spending $6 million per day to contain the oil leak. The cost in terms of damage to wildlife and coastal ecosystems, livelihoods of workers all along the Gulf Coast, the tourist industry, and U.S. trade is nearly impossible to quantify. For now it’s anyone’s guess.

American taxpayers will have to foot a huge part of the bill and deficit spending will be driven up even more. All because half a million dollars was too much to spend on the ultimate failsafe.

If you find comfort in the idea that these vastly rich oil companies will pay for the catastrophes they create, think again. The powerful oil lobbyists successfully fought to shield giant oil companies from any substantial legal liability many years ago.

When oil companies fail, taxpayers foot the bill. Adding insult to injury, oil companies typically use interruptions in domestic oil supply to jack up prices at the pump, leaving the average consumer to pay for the oil company’s oversights twice while the oil company continues to make record profits.

So while worst-case scenarios estimate the cost of BP’s oil leak to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, the company’s legal liability is capped at $75 million.

This is why the oil executives, lobbyists, and legislators who jumped into the pockets of the big oil companies are criminally negligent and should be held responsible for willfully harming this country in the name of profit.